I’ve been meaning to write about sa-gu since … well, since a couple of months ago, when I did a double-take while walking by one of Daegu’s many sparsely furnished but brightly lit pool halls. (If the description sounds like the antithesis of the average American billiards experience, that’s because it is.)
When I play pool (badly), there are a few things I want/require: dim lighting, so I can ignore the rednecks guzzling Bud Light at the next table; beer, and plenty of it (preferably a Yuengling, please); and a comfortable, well-worn bar, table or other manner of seating to rest my weary bones after a particularly grueling battle with the cue stick.
Here’s what I’ve seen in Korea: lighting that looks like you’ve entered the sterile, pristine confines of a dentist’s office; the offer of coffee or tea (although I’m certain that almost all billiards bars do serve beer); and a few plastic chairs that look like they might shatter into tiny pieces if I attempted to heave my full weight (read: under triple digits) onto them.
But that’s not what made me do a double-take. Most pool tables here have no pockets. And there are only four balls. That’s why it’s called sa-gu (사구). Sa is Korean for “four” and gu is “ball.” Pretty simple, huh?
Being epically bad at run-of-the-mill billiards myself, I have yet to try the doubly difficult sa-gu. But the basic rules are this: There are two cue balls, one for each player. Points are earned by hitting both of the other balls with your cue ball. I’m lucky if I can tap one little ball when I shoot the cue, forget trying to hit two in one shot. Fortunately, most pool halls I’ve seen have both sa-gu and the more familiar pocket billiard tables.
I thought this four-ball phenomenon was unique to Korea, but the ever-enlightening Ask-A-Korean says that this is called “straight carom billiards,” and variations of the game are played all over the world. Well I’ll be darned.
So while I’ve yet to find a pool hall with that stale-beer-and-day-old-vomit smell and the greasy, comfortable vibe that I crave, if you’re looking for a fun (and super cheap) way to spend a few hours in Korea, just walk out on to any semi-populated street. Look up and to your left; look up and to your right. Odds are you’ll see more than a few blazing neon sa-gu signs beckoning.